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Urgent meeting: Queenstown's mayor Jim Boult

By TRACEY ROXBURGH

Queenstown mayor Jim Boult’s going to “bust my backside” to help lead the resort, and the district, out of the coronavirus crisis.

But, he warns, it will have an impact far bigger than anything most of us will see in our lifetimes.

“My father and mother lived through World War II – of course, this is not a war, but it is going to have those sort of effects on us and the world, generally.

“I’m finding it difficult to comprehend how bad this will be.

“The economic fallout for the Queenstown Lakes district will go on for years.

“I suspect in five years’ time we’ll still be feeling the effects of this.”

Boult, whose Tuesday night interview with Mountain Scene was the 18th he’d given since last Sunday, says he was enjoying a “beautiful” Saturday when his phone started ringing and he saw Southern District Health Board boss Chris Fleming’s name on the screen.

He knew immediately what was going on.

“It was almost one of those moments where you think, ‘I don’t think the world’s going to be the same any more’.

“Then I watched the Prime Minister deliver her message at 4.30pm and I knew the world wasn’t going to be the same again.”

He’s struggling to find an industry that’s not going to be adversely affected by the overnight evaporation of the tourism industry, something he says no one could have prepared for.

Included in those immediately affected are itinerant workers and everyone on work visas who, he predicts, will “be the first to be chucked out”, the incoming ski season workers – “are we going to get back into business before ski season?” – the summer seasonal workers who’d normally head to the northern hemisphere and chase the sun but now, probably, can’t.

“The quality of life survey shows us that around 20 per cent of our home owners in the district rely on Airbnb or something or other to pay their mortgage.

“What the hell’s going to happen?

“I think some of the hotel projects around town, you’re going to build a new hotel but there’s nobody there to stay in it, so I think all of that is going to dwindle to a halt.

“Forget about airports … we’re just not even going to be thinking about things like that.

“We’re going to be busting our backsides to get people in for staff to rebuild the industry.”

Boult says already he’s made some big decisions to try to help get Queenstown out of the hole.

Arguably the biggest: the proposed visitor levy’s been parked.

City Hall’s been working on the local Bill for several months, following last year’s non-binding referendum, hoping to get it across the line before this year’s general election.

“What we’ve said is we’ve just got to park it up – we are not going to ask accommodation places that are struggling to have another cost imposed.

“But, there will come a time when we will return to normal, it’s still a smart idea.”

He’s also written to government to ask for a reconsideration of the overseas buyer ban in Queenstown to help stimulate at least part of the economy.

“That might give the construction industry a shot in the arm.

“I suspect more of those really rich overseas folk, particularly Americans, will have an interest in coming here … and, gee, if they all wanted a $10 million mansion built, that might be a really good thing.

“I think there are some things that can be done around that.”

Boult also wants an urgent review of essential skills work visas.

There’s no doubt the next few months will be tough – he says if you imagine Queenstown at Christmas and New Year being “100 per cent, I think we’re going to be five or 10 per cent for a while”.

But, he says, there are potentially some positives in this.

“Maybe we talk to government about getting some of those infrastructure projects going in the town public transport system that really is Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

It’s also going to “accelerate moves” to diversify the district’s economy.

“That’s a good thing.”

Domestic tourism will also become increasingly important and he’s expecting intrepid Kiwis to spend more time exploring our own country, and boosting our own economy.

“We were going to go back to Italy in July and I said to [mayoress] Karen, ‘Coromandel’s good that time of year’.

“That’s what we’ve got to do – we’ve got to get our head around that.”

More than anything, though, Boult wants people to remember this is not permanent.

“While this is really serious … we’re going to get up tomorrow morning, and the sun will come up.

“It’s not going to stop the world.

“We will carry on.

“We are a resilient district, we will find a way to cope with it … we will come out of it.

“My job … is to be the person that’s holding the steering wheel to lead our district out of this issue.

“If I’ve got a gift, it’s in having a cool head when things go wrong.

“I will bust my backside to get the best possible outcome for this district.”

tracey.roxburgh@scene.co.nz